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Oil heat program launch warms Harlem Co-op

Ivan Campbell | 2/3/2010, 6:13 a.m.
Citizens Energy Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy II greets Fletcher Baldwin, president of the tenants’ cooperative at 499 130th...
Citizens Energy Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy II greets Fletcher Baldwin, president of the tenants’ cooperative at 499 130th Street in Harlem, after delivering heating oil with the assistance of Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez (center). Looking on is the Co-op treasurer, Chyresse Lopez. Erint Images

To compound the problem, the economic downturn has resulted in a flood of new applicants to the federal fuel assistance program. In spite of a funding boost, a million new eligible households have forced a drop in the average program benefit by 20 percent, to about $400, while oil prices have risen 20 percent since last winter. That leaves low-income families being squeezed and the assistance more important than ever, said Kennedy.

Venezuela, a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is a major supplier of petroleum products to the U.S. and is the source of about half the heating oil consumed in New England. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has used his nation’s oil wealth to increase social spending at home and provide countries in Central America and the Caribbean basin with subsidized fuel.

Critics have lambasted Chavez’s donation of fuel to poor households in the U.S. as a way of embarrassing his North American neighbors, particularly President Bush, with whom Chavez engaged in a running war of words during the former president’s two terms in office.

 But Lopez said last week she didn’t care where the oil came from.  “I’ve never been to Venezuela but it means so much to know that they care about us, living in our building, on the corner of a small block in Harlem,” she said.

Income-eligible households can apply for a free delivery of 100 gallons of heating oil by calling the Citizens Energy toll-free hotline number 1-877-JOE-4-OIL.